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Mar 17, 2010

Spinning the Media: Spin doctors have plenty to say in health reporting

When it comes to health reporting, the relationship between journalists and public relations people could be in need of a check-up, writes Flint Duxfield.

When it comes to health reporting, the relationship between journalists and public relations people could be in need of a check-up.

The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism’s analysis of more than 200 health, medicine and science-related stories showed that more than half the health journalism in our papers is driven by a public relations event or media release.

The findings come as little surprise to veteran health journalist Ray Moynihan, who has spent several years researching health and the media. “A lot of what pretends to be health reporting is simply the crude regurgitation of PR messages,” he said.

One journalist from the Herald Sun said it was routine, particularly with shorter news stories, to rely entirely on a press release for a news article.

“It is very common if we don’t get the information we need just to use a press release,” she said.

Of the stories examined during a week in September last year, the ACIJ found that more than one third had no significant additional work done by the journalist beyond reading a press release.

Communications officer for the CSIRO’s Geelong office Heather Forward said she frequently finds press releases reprinted word for word as stories.

“I do find that a lot of [journalists] have just taken what we’ve given them and copied and pasted it and changed just the headline.

“They don’t necessarily follow up with going and finding out a bit more, they just massage the media release a bit,” she said.

Journalists say the sheer amount of PR, combined with greater pressure to produce more stories for a minute-by-minute news cycle is to blame for the high number of PR-generated stories.

“Journalists are struggling under an ever-increasing amount of PR being driven by an industry that has incredible amounts of resources dedicated to pushing their commercial message out to the public,” said one health reporter from a major Australian news outlet.

“It’s getting increasingly hard because there is such a demand for news throughout the 24-hour news cycle. Editors want more stories, more often … and so there is more of a risk that journalists won’t have time to follow through on something correctly,” he said.

Public relations people are also noticing the impact that tighter deadlines are having on journalists’ ability to assess PR.

“Journalists are under a lot of pressure now, and so there is a tendency to take what’s in a press release without actually checking the facts,” said the communications manager from a large Melbourne university.

Bob Burton, freelance health journalist and editor of PR monitoring website Sourcewatch, said the prevalence of PR in health journalism is also due to a comparative lack of specialist health reporters in Australia.

“There are a relatively high percentage of health stories filed by general news reporters or pulled off wire services. With that comes a weaker level of journalism and a power imbalance in favor of the PR companies who have massive resources to put into promotion.”

Dr Susannah Elliott, CEO of the Australian Science Media Centre, said she has noticed journalists becoming more reliant on groups such as the ASMC to provide basic information on science issues.

“There are quite a lot of journalists that need a lot more help from us than they used to. We’re getting a lot of calls, not just for expert comment, but they often want background information from us now as well … because they don’t have time to research the topic.

“We don’t tend to blame the journalists as such — we do see that they’re under a lot more pressure.”

According to the health reporters it is routine for them to receive hundreds of emails and tens of phone calls each day from PR people.

“I need a second phone for the amount of PR phone calls I receive. It’s just constant and it’s extremely frustrating,” said one health reporter from a prominent newspaper.

“I’ve never experienced this amount of PR in other areas that I’ve worked in, it’s quite aggressive,” she said.

Other health journalists spoken to by the ACIJ  agreed that the health industry generates some of the slickest and most prolific PR around.

“I’ve seen a level of sophistication that I’ve not seen in PR on other issues, perhaps because there are such large amounts of money involved,” said one health reporter.

And it’s not just the drug companies you might expect that are involved in expensive PR campaigns.

Non-government organisations, research bodies and patient support groups are also heavily active in promoting their interest through PR. Many of these operate as third-party organisations working closely with the drug companies they are often funded by, yet maintaining an aura of independence that gives them more credibility in the eyes of the public and the media.

As one specialist health reporter put it: “It’s routine to receive research seemingly done by credible independent outlets that has a commercial imperative.”

But not all journalists see health PR as such a burden. The Age’s health editor Nick Miller says PR people in the health round are some of the best he has ever dealt with. “When you phone them up and you need an answer or an expert in a hurry and they know exactly who to go to, they’re fantastic … they’re better than Google.”

Miller admits that the hundreds of emails and calls he receives each day from PR people can be tiresome, but he says that 99% of the time health spin is blatantly obvious.

“I find it insulting, all this stuff about journalists being outnumbered by PR people, it’s bollocks. Anyone with any amount of sense can see when they are being pitched to.

“If we’re smart we can deal with it and use it to produce decent stories,” he said.

But freelance medical journalist and Crikey’s health co-ordinator Melissa Sweet said that journalists are often under pressure to report stories generated by press releases. “Journalists are reluctant to spike press releases because they think other people will get the story. News editors are afraid that someone else might get the story.”

Most journalists spoken to by the ACIJ  denied that they were under any editorial pressure to run stories based on press releases.

“My editors usually trust my judgement as to what PR we should follow,” said one health journalist.

Although she admitted: “There’s always the fear that if you let a press release go, you won’t have covered off on something.”

One journalist from a News Limited paper said the ratio of stories generated by press releases compared to those arising from journalists’ own initiative was “probably about half and half” at her paper, which she said is “about the right balance”.

This was borne out by the ACIJ’s findings, which showed that just over half of the health stories in News Limited and Fairfax publications were driven by PR. This was noticeably more consistent than in other rounds where News Corp had, on average, 15% more stories driven by PR and 10% more stories that displayed no significant research beyond reading a press release.

But some journalists said the ratio of PR-driven health stories could be much higher than these figures suggest.

“The amount of journalism that occurs today that doesn’t have a press release involved at some point would be vanishingly small,” said a health reporter from a major news outlet.

Many journalists agree that media releases are a practical way of receiving information. As one health journalist put it: “What’s the alternative, everyone knocking on your door and wanting to speak to you personally?”

But Moynihan said a culture of relying on press releases to generate news is something journalists should reject.

“One of the aims of journalism is to tell the public things that powerful interest don’t want them to know and when you’re just reporting on press releases it’s hard to do that.”

“The public loses out when the relationship between the PR people and the journalists become too cozy, which is often the case in health reporting,” he said.

Not only is it the public that loses out through the close relationship between PR and journalism. Bob Burton says that by relying on press releases journalists are writing themselves into a corner.

“Being driven by PR initiated content pushes journalism into a dead end. It not only fails to serve the public, but it also creates a commercial cul de sac for the media because people realise that what journalists provide can just as easily be sourced from a press release on a website.”

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